Here’s my Sermon from Sunday, April 1, 2007, as well as the readings. Let me know what you think – Lori.
Anonymous by Sydney Carter
The Jesus who
Keeps saying “I am Jesus,
‘Look at me,
There is no substitute”
Is an imposter. Do not trust
The Christian cult of
Personality. I came
To turn you on and not
To turn you off,
To make you free and not
To tie you up.
My yoke was easy and
My burden light
Until they made
Salvation copyright, and
All in the name of Jesus.
My name was ever Jesus,
From now on
I am anonymous.
It Matters What We Believe by Sophia Lyons Fahs
Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.
Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children’s days with fears of unknown calamities.
Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.
Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.
Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.
Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own direction.
Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.
Some beliefs weaken a person’s selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.
Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.
Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.
Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.
Pearl of Great Price – Lori Allen
Today is Palm Sunday. The beginning of Holy Week for Christian traditions. It seemed to me this would be a good day to talk about Jesus and his ministry. Now I know, by virtue of living in our Christian culture, we all know the messages of Jesus’ ministry. It’s not too controversial, and for the most part, we can all agree to embrace Jesus’ messages: Love your neighbor as yourself – good. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – makes sense. Whatever ye sow, so shall ye reap – cause and effect. Help the poor, care for the sick – we all want to do our part here. Don’t judge other people – good advice; seek the kingdom of heaven within yourself – hmm, not so clear on this one.
We may agree on Jesus’ messages, but not the religion that bears his name. What is it that is so controversial about this religion that many of us do not call ourselves Christians today? Let me share a parable with you from Tom Harpur’s book “For Christ’s Sake.” Mr. Harpur is a former Catholic priest who argues that contemporary
America needs a radically new understanding of Jesus’ message. Here’s the parable, paraphrased a bit:
There once was a vast desert, void of all vegetation but the hardiest thorns and briars. Through the middle of the dessert stretched a rough highway along which all of humanity was making its pilgrimage. They straggled along footsore and thirsty, tired and frightened by many nameless fears.
But at one point along the way a clear spring of running water bubbled up out of a naked rock. No one knew who first discovered it; that secret has long since been lost. Yet for countless generations the people journeying along the road stopped to refresh themselves there. And as they did so, they found to their surprise and delight that the waters not only quenched their thirst, but satisfied deeper needs as well. Somehow, in drinking at that source they found their minds and bodies healed, their hopes and courage growing strong again. Life became rich with fresh meaning. They found they could pick up their various burdens and take to the highway with new hearts. They called the spot “the place of living waters” and the spring itself was called “the water of life.”
Now as time went on, certain people began to roll boulders around the spring as monuments of gratitude. As generations and centuries passed, those monuments became more elaborate and ornate, arched over by a great fortress-like cathedral and protected by high stone walls. A special caste of men, with special robes and a language all their own, came into being to set rules for preserving the purity of the well. Access was no longer free to all, and disagreements as to who could drink there, and when, and how, sometimes grew so bitter that wars were fought over the spring.
The victors of these wars always put up more monuments in gratitude for winning, and so it was that, as the years rolled by, the spring itself was bricked over and lost from view. No one remembered when exactly it was done or by whom. The pilgrims complained about the loss, and many were found fainting or even near death on the road. Those now in charge either mocked their cries or simply ignored them. Beautiful ceremonies were carried out inside the holy place to celebrate what the well had done for pilgrims many years before, while at the very gates people were dying of thirst.
Eventually other water was piped in, at great expense, from distant places, but it seemed a mere shadow compared to the reality that once had been there for all to enjoy. And so in the end the vast majority of people who journeyed along that route avoided the now-sacred “place of living waters” and survived in whatever way they could. Many, when they passed the shrine and recalled the stories they had learned in youth about the hidden spring, were seized with nostalgia and longings too deep to utter. Other struggled on, embittered by cynical doubt that the healing waters had ever existed at all. But sometimes on a still night, if you pass the shrine, it is said that you can hear a faint echo of running water miraculously pouring over a rock.
I have been one of the pilgrims on the route that passed the shrine, filled with a longing that was too deep to utter. But I must say, I have always been filled with a longing for an active spiritual life. When I decided that Christianity didn’t work for me, I kept longing for and seeking the spiritual.
When I first heard this parable, I was a daily practitioner of Eknath Easwaran’s Eight Point Meditation program. This method of meditation consists of saying slowly in the mind the words of inspirational passages that express one’s highest ideals. The passages are chosen from scriptures and mystics of all religions. To everyone, regardless of faith, Eknath recommended beginning with the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy; O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.” As an “ex-Christian” I was resistant to using the Prayer of St. Francis for my inspirational passage. I avoided anything with a Christian context as it gave me a discomfort that I just couldn’t define. But when I read Tom Harpur’s book and read the parable of the living waters, it made me wonder – what if I were to be one of those people who sat quietly in the dark and listened for the sound of the flowing water? What if I were to listen to the stories of Jesus’ life and teaching in a new light and reclaim any that might hold meaning and truth for me? It was a relief for me to stop avoiding any Christian teachings – it made my daily practice of meditation so much easier. I was able to be open to all sacred texts and stories without holding a bias for anything Christian. To help you understand, I will share with you the eight points of Eknath’s meditation plan: The first step is to slowly repeat a whole or part of a sacred text while meditating; Second, repetition of a mantra at random times during the day, and when falling asleep; Next is slowing down, rid yourself of non-essential activities; Fourth, giving one-pointed attention. This means no multi-tasking; Fifth, training the senses. This point refers to healthy choices for our body and mind; Sixth is putting the welfare of others first; Seventh is spiritual community and companionship; and finally, number eight is reading from the scriptures and mystics of all religions and spiritual traditions. In the beginning of Easwaran’s book “Meditation”, and in his meditation workshops, he claims that following this form of meditation will bring more peace and joy into your consciousness, the goal being a higher state of consciousness. He calls this higher state of consciousness by many different names: illumination, enlightenment, nirvana, self-realization and entering the kingdom of heaven – within. Whatever the language, the experience is everywhere the same. Jesus called it “a pearl of great price.” Without it, our lives will always be wanting; even if we have to give everything on earth to obtain it, the cost would not be too high to pay. Let me talk more about number eight, reading from the scriptures and mystics of all religions. Since we are entering Holy Week in the Christian tradition, I will share some of my reflections from that period of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Christian scriptures. Today is Palm Sunday – named for the way Jesus was welcomed to
Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago. His reputation as a fearless activist preceded him, and he was welcomed by the curious and hopeful who spread his path with palm fronds. They thought his words and deeds on his visit to
Jerusalem might shake up the hierarchy that was oppressing the weak and powerless people of that time and place. He was an early activist, highly critical of the social and political systems of the day. Yet his words, his deeds and his actions got him in trouble. So much so, that he was put to death by the political pundits of the day, the Romans, who also crucified thousands of other Jewish troublemakers during their occupation of the ancient
I get the crucifixion. There are stories about other activists who have been assassinated or put to death for their words and deeds. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Joan of Arc, and many more famous and infamous souls. They all had good messages and bad timing. What I struggle with is the resurrection of Jesus. The story of Jesus’ resurrection, real or metaphoric, must have greatly affected those who knew him. As we know the story still affects many people living today. But why do we only believe it happened once? Why not with the other great activists of the world who died a violent death? I came across a short essay by Philip Hallie entitled “An Apology to My Mother.” It is one of the most well described resurrection stories I have heard. Written in the form of a letter, Hallie reflects on his mother’s passing which had occurred just nine days earlier. He writes:
Your death has done some strange things to your son. And I feel what it has done more sharply now, here in Connecticut, than I felt it while I was burying you in
Chicago. One of the things it has done is to make it impossible for me to lie to you anymore. Before…[you died], I used to say to myself, “She is there, in
Chicago. She’ll never find out.”…No more. I once thought that death is only parting, but it is more strange than that. Now I feel that you were separate from me before you died. While you were alive you were there, outside of me, there in
Chicago, or there across the table stroking your right eyebrow and dreaming. I could think my own thoughts, I could plan my own travels, and I could feel my own guilty disdain for your fears.
But now you are within me as you have never been before. Now there is nothing you cannot find out about my thoughts. Sometimes I am like an empty house that is full of your spirit, your fears, and your sense of humor…. It was only your body we buried in that hole on that rainy day in May, your body, which was always separate from me, ever since you gave birth to me. I feel your soul as I never felt it before you died. Life parted us, not death.
This is a resurrection story. Perhaps this is the feeling that Jesus’ friends and disciples had after his death. How many times do we hear people tell someone that their loved ones will always live on in memories? Is that not a resurrection of sorts? I have to honestly say that I do not believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, but I do believe in resurrections, even resurrections without death.
A few years ago, Rebecca Parker, President of Starr King UU Theological School in
California presented the program for the LREDA conference. That is the annual conference for Liberal Religious Educators. Ms. Parker is an ordained Methodist minister and in dual fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. She was speaking that year about UU Philosophy and Theology. While I have extensive notes on her lectures, and have often referred to them when thinking about or explaining UU Philosophy, it was a personal story she shared that I remember most vividly from that conference. This story is told in the book “A Proverb of Ashes” which she co-wrote. Here is and excerpt from her story:
“Everything I most loved had slipped out of my hands. I felt there was nothing left to hold on to—not my marriage, not my child, not my faith.
I spiraled into grief and self-directed anger. One night I came to the end of my will to live. I just wanted the anguish to stop. It was a cold, clear night. I lived at the top of a hill above a lake and sometime after midnight I left my house and started walking down the hill. The water would be cold enough. I could walk into it, then swim, then let go, sink down into the darkness and go home to God. The thought was comforting. I had no second thoughts. I was set on my course.
At the bottom of the hill, I had only a small grassy rise to cross before I came to the water’s edge. I crested the familiar rise and began the descent to the welcoming water when I was caught short by a barrier that hadn’t been there before. It looked like a long line of oddly shaped sawhorses, laid out to the left and to the right, the width of the grassy field. In the dark, I couldn’t see a way to get around either end, but it looked like I could climb over the middle. I quickened my pace, impelled by the grief that wouldn’t let go of me. As I got closer, the dark forms before my eyes seemed to be moving. I squinted to understand what I was seeing.
The odd bunchy shapes were a line of human beings bundled up in parkas and hats. The stick shapes weren’t sawhorses. They were telescopes. It was the Seattle Astronomy Club. Before I could make my way through the line, one of them looked up from his eyeglass and, presuming me to be an astronomer, said with enthusiasm, “I’ve got it focused perfectly on Jupiter. Come, take a look.”
I didn’t want to be rude or give away my reason for being there, so I bent down and looked through the telescope. There was Jupiter, banded red and glowing! “Isn’t it great?” he said. It was great. Jupiter was beautiful through the telescope.
I couldn’t kill myself in the presence of these people who had gotten up in the middle of a cold night, with their home-built Radio Shack telescopes, to look at the planets and the stars.
The beauty of the night sky, the dew wet grass at my feet, and the Seattle Astronomy Club kept me in this world.
It would be wrong to think of this moment as one in which joy triumphed over despair, good came out of bad, or love of life defeated desire for death. I did not defeat negative feelings of anguish and despair because I saw something more lovely and good. My heart was still breaking with grief, but I became able to feel more. I was able to place that grief within a larger heart, within a wider embrace that could hold sorrow and joy, loss and illumination, death and life. This, to me, is a resurrection story. Finding a new way to go on when we don’t think it’s possible to go on. This is a modern story, one we can understand, even possibly relate to. It inspires us, it reminds us that our lives are sacred and that we can learn from spiritual leaders who are alive today who have been able to articulate and cull their personal experiences and stories into lessons for our lives. These lessons, the parable of the living water, the letter to a mother, and Rev. Parker’s story; these are culturally relative stories for our lives. Is it possible to find the same meaning and value in the stories and parables of Jesus’ ministry? I believe it is. The stories are sometimes hard to integrate into the lives we lead today. But we can see a pattern. For as long as history has been recorded, there are stories about people doing the right thing, extraordinary people trying to right social wrongs and lift up all people. I agree with Jesus and with Eknath Easwaran that we can find the kingdom of heaven within ourselves, that pearl of great price, through spiritual practice. Or perhaps the pearl of great price is the life we live, conscious of how our actions affect others and the earth we live on. Perhaps that pearl is what we do when putting other’s needs ahead of our own. Perhaps we all have a pearl that is unique to us. Is it your life’s work? The people you call family? The stories you share? Or perhaps it’s your willingness to listen to those who need to be heard? Could it be the work you do to promote peace in our world? If you know what your pearl of great price is, hold it close. If not, seek your pearl of great price. Look for it in stories from all ages and all traditions. Live it through your thoughts and deeds.
It’s in Every One of Us by D. Pomeranz
It’s in every one of us
To be wise.
Find your heart,
Open up both your eyes.
We can all know everything
Without ever knowing why.
It’s in everyone of us.
You and I.
 Tom Harpur, For Christ’s Sake (Beacon Press, 1987) pp. 2-3
 Eknath Easwaran, Meditation (Nilgiri Press, 1978, 1991) pp. 29-30
 Eknath Easwaran, Meditation (Nilgiri Press, 1978, 1991) pp. 28
 Philip Hallie, Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), pp. 84-85
 Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes (
Boston: Beacon Press, 2001)